Game of Drones: ‘Winter is Coming’ for Already Icy Sino-Japanese Relations Over the Senkaku Islands

By: Nate Sawyer


The specter of a great power conflict between Japan, China, and the United States in a regional territorial fray over the Senkaku islands might only flicker in our imaginations as a faint possibility. But as tensions continue to flare between China and Japan as they clash over the eight contested islands in the East China Sea, recent “sky-high” escalations in aerial policies and aerial technology acquisitions have, as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remarked, begun “a whole new game” in the dispute that make war an alarmingly real possibility.[i]


The new situation launched itself into development with recent moves on either side that are pushing strains on peace even higher. Accelerated acquisition of unamend aerial vehicles (UAV’s), more commonly known as drones, lie at the heart of this aerial security dilemma. In September of this past year, the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) scrambled an F-15 fighter jet as a response to an incursion of Japanese airspace. Afterwards, it was found out that the culprit was a Chinese surveillance drone. That revelation sent Japanese military officials in a tailspin, fearing they were “one step behind” the Chinese in the use of drones in the Senkaku conflict.[ii]


In response, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and other high level governmental officials drafted and approved rules of engagement for drones that invade Japanese airspace. After giving standard initial warning to unidentified aircraft, the ASDF was instructed by military officials to intercept and shoot down any foreign drone that entered its airspace.[iii] Importantly, these guidelines were more aggressive than previous airspace incursion policies that indicate that enemy aerial vehicles can only be shot down if deemed to be a “threat,” and the Chinese responded to Japan’s declared drone response policy with the threat of severe retaliation should a Chinese drone be shot down.[iv] While this particular response from the Chinese wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, increasingly common airspace infiltrations by China drones might result in Abe considering more drastic responses like letting the ASDF fire warning shots at Chinese aircraft.[v]


In addition to the declared rules of engagement, Japan also recently outlined a defense budget for the new year that included a means to counter China’s growing drone arsenal. The budget called for an increase in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities as a response to China’s aerial provocations and surveillance capability superiority. In addition to plans to deploy more F-15 fighter aircraft and radar planes to Okinawa, Japan has also been eyeing a potential purchase of US drone technology.[vi] The ASDF is slated to include the acquisition of three US produced Global Hawk drones as their next purchase. With both sides rushing to produce or acquire larger numbers of the steel birds, the move by the Japanese potentially marks the beginning of an drones arms race . With Sino-Japanese relations as icy as they already are, the added “drone factor” could be the tipping point for the region as tensions finally boil over into full-scale conflict.[vii]


UAV’s are less costly to produce and operate than other forms of weaponry both in terms of other military aerial technologies and their human counterparts. Subsequently, eventual mass production of entire fleets of weaponized UAV’s isn’t an unlikely scenario should drones become more commonly integrated into Sino-Japanese military strategies over the islands.[viii] In fact, China is already preparing for “large-scale deployments of UAV’s” and Chinese aerospace firms have already produced dozens of drones that bear resemblance to the American Predator, Global Hawk, and Reaper models.[ix] Subsequently, Beijing has already begun the doctrinal integration process as “maritime law enforcement agencies” have already begun “integrating [drones] into their operations.”[x]


Furthermore, while shooting down a UAV doesn’t kill a human pilot inside and in that respect does reduce battlefield casualties, this distinction ends up encouraging risk-taking on both sides as there is no pilot’s life at risk. [xi] With a large lack of norms for the use of these new, emerging technologies, the potential for miscommunication and miscalculation is high.[xii]


Additionally, there exists an asymmetry in the way that two different sides perceive a drone incursion. As drone proliferation becomes more commonplace, it’s not hard to envision a scenario where China sends a surveillance drone, believing that such an intrusion is merely defensive in nature, and the ASDF in the panic of the moment believes the unidentified aerial vehicle to be an offensive attack drone. With drones, the distinction between legitimate defensive acts and provocative preludes to offensive strikes becomes blurred risking escalation of even minor encounters.[xiii]


Finally, while China might feel that there exists a distinction in bellicosity and perceived aggression between using drones to infiltrate Japanese airspace and a more explicit weaponized aerial vehicle like a bomber, the fact does remain that a drone is a military vehicle. Continued use of small scale provocations with drones may provoke hardline response from the Japanese who will find it increasingly difficult to resist responding. This is especially true given that Abe will have an ever-harder time of avoiding political backlash if he doesn’t respond with a firm hand, particularly because he has publicly declared his opposition to Beijing’s UAV incursions and has promised to address the situation.[xiv]


This political factor in play in Japan is also very much present on the Chinese side of the equation. While there are those who claim that China’s moves are “[aimed] to push rather than break limits,” security analysts in both countries are wary of relying on China’s supposed restraint as internal power struggles within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) politically force high-level officials to claim a hardline political stance against peaceful resolution to the issue.[xv] Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration won’t risk reconciliation with the Japanese while trying to shore up public support out of fear of exposing the administration to harsh public backlash and military opposition which could undermine his not-yet-solidified authority.[xvi]


While China and Japan have avoided war as of yet despite a series of provocations stretching back for several years, the introduced element of unmanned aerial vehicles poses a unique challenge for maintaining stability. As the Sino-Japanese game of drones continues, there increased recognition and awareness of the dangers that these aerial developments pose for conflict resolution and tension de-escalation.

Nathaniel Sawyer is a freshman at Emory University planning to double major in music composition and interdisciplinary studies with a focus on neuroscience and music. Recipient of the 2013 Alben W. Barkley Merit Scholarship for academic and policy debate achievement, he is also a research intern at the National Forensic League and assistant coach of debate and research at Glenbrook North High School.

[[i]] The Economist, “The East China Sea: Regional Turbulence,” Tian Xia Commonwealth Magazine, November 29, 2013, accessed January 18, 2014,


[[ii]] The Asahi Shimbun, “ASDF Confirms Unidentified Drone Flying Over East China Sea,” The Asahi Shimbun, September 10, 2013, accessed January 18, 2014,


[[iii]] The Japan Times, “Japan to Shoot Down Foreign Drones that Invade its Airspace,” The Japan Times, October 20, 2013, accessed January 18, 2014,


[[iv]] William Engdahl, “‘Japan Targets China as Islands Dispute Threatens to Boil Over,” RT News, November 6, 2013, accessed January 18, 2014,


[[v]] Minnie Chan, “Japan May Allow Jets to Fire Warning Shots at Chinese Aircraft,” South China Morning Post, January 10, 2013, accessed January


[[vi]] David Sanger, “In the East China Sea, a Far Bigger Test of Power Looms,” The New York Times, December 1, 2013, accessed January 18, 2014,


[[vii]] Katie Spence, “Japan Looks to Buy Drones, and China Goes Ballistic,” The Motley Fool, January 5, 2014, accessed January 18, 2014,


[[viii]] Shawn Brimley et al., “The Drone War Comes to Asia,” Foreign Policy, September 17, 2013, accessed January 18, 2014,


[[ix]] Christopher Bodeen, “China’s Drone Program Appears to be Moving into Overdrive,” The Huffington Post, May 13, 2013, accessed January 18, 2014,


[[x]] Shaun Waterman, “Drone War Heats Up Between China and Japan,” The Washington Times, September 9, 2013, accessed January 18, 2014,


[[xi]] Shawn Brimley et al., “The Drone War Comes to Asia,” Foreign Policy, September 17, 2013, accessed January 18, 2014,


[[xii]] Dan Gettinger, “‘An Act of War’: Drones are Testing China-Japan Relations,” Center for the Study of the Drone, November 8, 2013, accessed January 18, 2014,


[[xiii]] James R. Holmes, “Will Asian Drones Make Conflict More or Less Likely?” The Diplomat, September 26, 2013, accessed January 18, 2014,


[[xiv]] Mira Rapp-Hooper, “The Battle for the Senkakus Moves to the Skies,” The Diplomat, November 12, 2013, accessed January 18, 2014,


[[xv]] Jack Kelly, “China’s Threats Hark Back to Darkness of WWII,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 8, 2014, accessed January 18, 2014,


[[xvi]] Asia News Network, “Geo-Political Disputes and Economic Links Mark Sino-Japanese Relations,” The China Post, January 8, 2014, accessed January 18, 2014,

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